Women in Digital: Emma Presley Abbott

Emma Presley Abbott, deputy director, head of enterprise insight, head of data practice and head of digital sustainability at Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), explains how her career has been shaped by purpose, and how being ‘authentic, ambitious, and approachable’ creates a good leader.

Posted 13 November 2023 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

I’m fortunate that the traditional schooling system suited my learning style, so I did well across all my subjects. When it came to choosing my A Level subjects, I focused on what I enjoyed the most, including Maths. I can’t say that I loved the environment of school as I was fairly shy. My confidence really started to increase when I went to university and met lots more people with common interests and outlooks.

What qualifications do you have?

I have a Masters in Mathematics from the University of Bristol. I particularly enjoyed my final year of study, as the opportunity to really specialise more than made up for the pressure of final exams. It was also during some of my final year modules and dissertation that I was first exposed to coding.

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

Somewhere in between. After university I joined a graduate programme at a customer data science company which is where I properly learned to code. I loved the variety of data and projects I worked on, designing and delivering innovative data solutions to solve business challenges. I worked across a range of sectors, including grocery and fashion retail, high street and investment banking, and social and TV media. However, I eventually realised I wasn’t excited by the purpose of the work I was delivering in the private sector.

Reflecting on how important purpose is to me was the motivation that I needed to ultimately move into the Civil Service and end up at DWP Digital. I joined as head of data science for Universal Credit, leading a highly respected data science function embedded within a transformational digital programme.

I’m now a deputy director in DWP Digital, with three main areas of responsibility. As head of enterprise insight, I’m responsible for the Department’s digital reporting capability in Power BI, looking to standardise and scale self-service management information reporting to thousands of users across DWP. I’m head of practice for data, helping to grow the data community, and supporting recruitment, learning, development, and career opportunities. I’ve also recently taken on responsibility as head of digital sustainability, aiming to reduce the environmental impact of the Department’s use of digital technologies; whilst this is my first sustainability role in the workplace, sustainability has long been a personal priority of mine.

 What is the best career advice you can give to others?

I haven’t planned out my career as I have never had a singular role or ambition that I’ve always wanted to work towards. Despite this, I’ve still had a successful career by focusing on roles and opportunities that I enjoy, which I believe is the main reason that I’ve thrived. My take on career advice is to focus on what you love and what you want to do, not what you think you should do. Taking time for regular reflection is important to support this and helps you to stay open to and confidently take hold of new opportunities as and when they present themselves.

If you had to pick one mentor, that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

I’m not sure I could pick just one. I’m lucky to have had a range of people throughout my career that I have been able to turn to for advice and guidance. I think there is benefit of seeking a range of mentors, each with a specific aspect or experience that you want to learn from. I have two brilliant mentors currently, both women who are senior leaders in DWP Digital, and who have both supported me through a big transition into my current role. They have helped me to work out who I am as a leader and re-find myself in the workplace when I returned to a more senior role after maternity leave.

From where do you draw inspiration?

I love listening to people’s stories, there is so much we can learn from the experience of others. No one person has all the answers, so fostering a collaborative working environment with my team and encouraging contribution from a range of perspectives really improves the quality of my own work.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

I have found the step up into my current role particularly challenging, which I started after a year on maternity leave. It was difficult to re-discover myself in the workplace whilst tackling the new challenges I faced in my first senior leadership position alongside learning how to balance work and home life with a young family.

I struggled to find anyone ‘like me’ to learn from and share my experiences with, as my peers are typically older and are more likely to talk about GCSE results and grumpy teenagers than nursery drop offs and the terrible twos! With the support of my mentors, I have come to realise that I don’t need to find anyone ‘like me’ to learn from, and that getting comfortable with being my authentic self at work is the best way to succeed.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

I think a good leader is authentic, ambitious, and approachable. Authenticity is important as it demonstrates that diversity is welcomed in leadership roles and helps to foster an inclusive working environment in which everyone can be themselves and feel as though their experience is valued. Ambition is important in leading teams towards difficult goals, as long as the vision is clearly articulated so that everyone is working towards the same outcome. Approachability is important too, ensuring that everyone knows that their voice will be heard, resulting in better collaboration and improved outcomes.

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12 months been like?

The last 12 months have been brilliant, as I’ve felt more settled into my current role. I have redefined the whole strategy and operating model for the function that I am responsible for, built a strong and diverse internal team, and started to inhouse our work. It feels a bit pinch-me that I can look around at my function and my growing team and watch my vision coming to life day-by-day.

What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?

The two most significant things we can offer to women considering a digital or data career are belief and support.

Helping women believe that a digital career is for them, sharing success stories of women already in the industry, making sure that our external-facing content is representative and inclusive, and sharing our own unique and varied career pathways.

Supporting women into a digital career by offering a variety of entry routes into digital careers such as apprenticeships, partnering with other organisations that support women into digital careers, mentoring women who are interested in or just starting out in their digital careers, and creating safe spaces for women to support each other.

Personally, the most incredible support I have received in my career is when my director reached out whilst I was on maternity leave to encourage me to apply for my current deputy director position. My director and mentors took time to support me through the application process, and I found out I was successful whilst I was on maternity leave and was able to return to work in DWP Digital on a promotion.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

If I turned off the video blur on Microsoft Teams, you would spot that my home working space is also my sewing space. Focusing on the instructions in a sewing pattern helps me to slow down a busy work brain, and I love the creative yet mathematical process of constructing fun and unique items of clothing. When someone compliments something that I’ve made, I love being able to respond with “thanks I made it!”

Emma is speaking at Think Data for Government in Westminster on December 12th. You can register to attend here.